Christopher Pyne is not one of Australia’s most popular politicians. Opinion polls show he hovers either just above Joe Hockey or just under him at the bottom of the nation’s esteem. Say what you like, it can’t be easy being Christopher. Some of, the Member for Sturt brings on himself with displays of spectacular ineptitude as Education Minister, (he makes State Education Ministers look good) or in his behaviour in the house. Calling Shorten a c**t in parliament and then lamely denying it does not endear you to the electorate. His personal manner and bearing do not help his cause. He’s been called prissy and precious and precocious and other ‘p’ words. And it is true that his style does not help his own cause. His parliamentary and press performances are almost a form of self-parodying performance art, a campy caricature of the consummate politician, now complete with new, enhanced technology: Pyne on line. Or an overcharged Energiser Bunny. It would be amusing if he did not demean himself, his audience and all other interested parties. For even as Pyne performance art, audience members are being short-changed.
Yet we must not be dazzled by the spectacle that is Christopher Pyne. We must look past the performance art. Indeed, his own razzle-dazzle can function as a strategic distraction, just as Liberace’s costume hid more than the occasional bum note. Let’s not be fooled by Abbott’s Fool. Let us put public spectacle to one side. The critical issue is what Christopher achieved when he set out to sink Peter Slipper. For whatever his motives, he has succeeded in diminishing all of us. He may also have further undermined, mired and befouled his own government.
What was he thinking at the time? Doubtless, his stiff the Slipper strategy appealed on many levels. In a sort of Black Ops way, attack dog Pyne could fetch his master’s Slipper, bring down the Gillard government, advance his own career and extend a bit of camaraderie, counselling and beer support to an attractive young staffer who was clearly in need of a mentor. And at first blush, it seemed to go off so very well. Judging by Pyne’s own après schmooze text message to James Ashby, he very much enjoyed their meeting. And Ashby appears to have been gladdened by the prospect of a political job after Slipper’s office and the knowledge his legal fees would be taken care of.
Today, however, Christopher’s plan has unravelled. And as it unravels it threatens to take its conspirators with it. First, the full bench of the Federal Court in February of this year found that in essence Ashby’s case was politically motivated, vexatious, and an abuse of process. It was effectively an attempt to bring down the speaker and damage his reputation. Then Pyne, of course, never kept his promises to James Ashby. There has been no job in politics and no payment of the staffer’s legal fees. Ashby will no longer have the costs of his sexual harassment suit against Peter Slipper paid for by the former speaker because his decision to drop the case robbed Mr Slipper of the opportunity to contest the allegations. In the Federal Court on Thursday, Justice Geoffrey Flick vacated a costs order made in August 2012 that would have required Mr Slipper to pay Mr Ashby’s considerable lawyers’ fees on an indemnity basis. Ashby has had to resort to Sixty Minutes to recoup some of the costs. And to get his revenge.
The circumstantial evidence is damning. Pyne conspires with Ashby to end former Speaker of the House of Representatives Peter Slipper’s political career. He induces the young staffer in Slipper’s office, to bring a sexual harassment case against his boss. Slipper resigns after indelicate misogynistic text messages to Ashby are made public. Pyne disavows any wrong-doing. And of course he claims to be unaware of any involvement by Tony Abbott and Mal Brough who both had their own good reasons to sink the boot into Slipper. And, of course, neither Abbott nor Brough know anything although Mal Brough does concede publicly that if the public thinks that he got rid of Slipper because he was after Slipper’s seat then that must be what happened.
After 60 Minutes goes to air. Pyne goes into damage control. For Pyne this is an especially risky manoeuvre. The more he protests, the more he indicts himself. His denials are evasive, wordy and completely unconvincing. Even for Christopher Pyne. He is in it over his head.
With barefaced audacity, he fronts cameras in a Colourbond fenced suburban backyard somewhere, Chateau Pyne sur Sturt, perhaps, and makes an embarrassingly lame attempt to divert the heat on to the previous Labor government. It is farcical, consummate Pyne performance art. Then he sings the set piece from the libretto to his comic opera. It is typically, tortuous, wordy, hair-splitting and evasive:
‘I had a brief meeting, we discussed the fact the Queensland state election was coming very soon, he indicated he was uncomfortable in Mr Slipper’s office and I indicated to him that if we won the Queensland state election that would be a chance potentially for him to get out of Mr Slipper’s office but the fact is there was no job ever provided for Mr Ashby,’ Mr Pyne said.
‘My intention was never to lead him to believe that a job would be provided to him but obviously if we won the Queensland state election and then subsequently the federal election, when you are in government there are a lot more jobs available than when you are in opposition and that if he felt uncomfortable in Mr Slipper’s office, that would be an opportunity for him to get out of the office.’
Get him out of the office is a key phrase. Freudian, perhaps. Pyne did not counsel the troubled staffer to follow normal procedures in such cases. Canberra public service protocols provide a framework and an expectation that such matters are resolved by other means and that legal action be considered only as a last resort. The “Genuine Steps Rule”, a procedure introduced in 2011 requires parties to try and resolve their disputes before taking court action. In Ashby’s case, the Judge questioned why a relatively minor matter like sexual harassment claims could not have been settled another way. Clearly by his own admission, here, Pyne has at best been a false friend. He has counselled courtroom conflagration and led the young staffer on to play with fire.
It matters not that Ashby did not proceed to take up a position in politics or government. What matters a great deal is that all evidence points to Pyne’s complicity in a plot to remove a member of parliament, a plot that surely Abbott and others in the then opposition knew about. Furthermore, Pyne seems to have been rewarded with a cabinet position. For fifteen long years no Liberal leader would even give him the time of day, let alone a portfolio.
Yet Abbott maintains he was unaware of the machinations surrounding Ashby’s complaint against the speaker, or the support of the Daily Telegraph. Astonishingly, Abbott’s press release calling for Slipper’s resignation was ready to print the moment the Telegraph went to press with the story. It may even have been prepared before the Slipper story broke.
Pyne encouraged Ashby to lay charges against Peter Slipper with two inducements. He offered to pay Ashby’s legal fees. He promised him a job afterwards. Ashby agreed to help Pyne ‘get’ Slipper. He was to lay a claim of sexual harassment against former Speaker of the House. Pyne says he knew that Ashby had been ‘uncomfortable’ with Slipper’s behaviour. He took the opportunity to exploit the situation.
Peter, “Salty cunts in brine” Slipper is himself an odd fish. And certainly, James Ashby also appears to be an unusual sort of chap. You wonder what was in it for him. What sort of job was he likely to get when it transpired that he had acted illegally? What was it that caused him to overlook his responsibility towards the ‘Genuine Steps’ process of conflict resolution in favour of a high stakes gamble with Pyne as banker? Why has he changed his testimony now? In court documents filed in 2012, Mr Ashby said he was not offered or did not receive any inducements or rewards for making the high-profile sexual harassment claims against Mr Slipper. Or could he simply have given up on his erstwhile Liberal mentor and supporters and elected to tell the truth. Is it coincidental that he was recently accused of having sexual relations with underage boys?
Above all, why, on 17 June did Ashby drop the case against Peter Slipper?
He gave these reasons:
Mr Ashby said he was aware of reports Mr Slipper was mentally unwell and he did not want to continue lengthy proceedings that could cause further harm.
“After deep reflection and consultation with those close to me, I now have decided to seek leave to discontinue my Federal Court action against Peter Slipper,” he said in a statement. “This has been an intense and emotionally draining time for me and my family, taking its toll on us all.”
Or perhaps, the more plausible explanation is that he was paid to shut up. The LNP fearing scandal paid him to drop the case.
Delegated or self-appointed agent provocateur, Pyne, would no doubt have leapt eagerly at the chance to help his master and his own career advancement. Doubtless there was more than a nod and a wink from his boss. Abbott’s ambition to win power at any price combined with his desire to wreak revenge on Peter Slipper for leaving the party and becoming speaker, allowing Labor government to remain in power.
Others on Team Abbott did their bit. Mal Brough, who would step into Slipper’s electorate at the following election, appears to have leapt at the chance to ask Ashby to download Slipper’s diary, a diary which was later leaked to News Corp. David Marr writes:
“Tony Abbott also has a stake in the appeal. He has stood by Brough despite his friend being caught trying to hide his role in the campaign to destroy Slipper. Abbott has never criticised his part in the operation. Despite Brough’s lies, he praises his candour: “I want to make it clear that Mal has been very upfront about his involvement in this”.
Since the 60 Minutes programme was broadcast there has been an unnatural silence.
Christopher Pyne prides himself on the correspondence he has with his constituents in the Blue Ribbon seat of Sturt. He sends constituents birthday cards on their 21st and significant birthdays. They love him, he says. He tells them he signs every card. By hand. They feel relaxed and comfortable with him. He believes.
Real power in Sturt even more than anywhere else in the country has little to do with politics. You would think you could win this wealthy, leafy Liberal seat just by putting on a blue tie. Over the years, however, Pyne has seen his majority decline to the point where Sturt is regarded as the most marginal seat in the country. Now that’s quite an achievement. No doubt changing demographics, as they say, have contributed to marginalising Sturt. Pyne cannot take all the blame. Ultimately, perhaps, as in parliament, to be an effective MP, you really do have to more than act like a politician. Pyne needs to heed the message his electorate is sending him. He needs to get relevant. Get real. Given the length of his career, however, he is either a slow learner or he just doesn’t have it in him. What is likely to happen is events will conspire to take the decision away from him. In a process of natural selection, he stands to lose his own seat at the next election.
In the meantime, Pyne needs to remember his place and station. He is pre-eminently Sturt’s Louis Vuitton manbag. He is Abbott’s fool in the House. He needs to give up the hanky panky and the covert ops. In his misguided zeal he stepped out of role as agent provocateur for Abbott and other like-minded Liberals and LNP members. Now lap-dog Pyne has ensured that his master, Tony Abbott has further tricky questions to answer. Questions that may well prove to be his undoing. Be that as it may, Abbott can now be assured of a place in history for his agency in the Peter Slipper scandal — a covert political conspiracy by the Coalition to bring down the Parliamentary Speaker, Peter Slipper, and through him the Federal Government of Australia.